As the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, Michael Feinstein is the prophet of the national canon of popular music from the early 20th century. As such, he has been educating audiences and listeners all over the world about the virtues of the music from the 1920s–'50s and preserving its relevance in our music culture today.
Feinstein proves the genius and magic of the genre once again with his upcoming Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts: Great American Crooners May 15 and 16 and I Could Have Danced All Night: The Lerner & Loewe Songbook June 5 and 6. As the JALC’s Director of Jazz and Popular Song for the past nine years, Feinstein has highlighted dozens of tentpole artists and their careers.
And Feinstein relishes bringing the music—and the stories behind it—to Lincoln Center. “Performing in the Appel Room it always feels like a party I think because of the vista, the view of New York,” he says. “As a backdrop it's breathtaking, and it brings a certain immediacy and real sense of this is the best of New York. And that's what we try and give to the audiences.”
Here, he spoke about his upcoming concerts, the special Broadway guests joining him, his favorite Alan Jay Lerner tale, and why we could all use a little more crooning right now.
What inspired the themes of these two shows?
Michael Feinstein: Well, I’d done this Jazz at Lincoln Center series for nine years, and it's always fun and sometimes challenging to come up with a theme that will fit in with the mission to combine jazz and popular song and keep standards alive. We started this year with a Peter Allen tribute. For me, it’s always trying to come up with something that feels fresh, that feels timely, and I chose the Lerner and Loewe show because last year was Alan Jay Lerner's centenary, and very few people acknowledge that. And certainly the work of Lerner and Loewe continues, but I thought it would be important to focus a little bit more with narration and text about their accomplishments and put the music and put their work into a different context. I knew Lerner slightly. He was a charming man and had a great witty sense of humor, and so I feel honor bound to share that experience with people through his work.
What is something that you've put into the narration in the Lerner and Loewe show that you think people probably don't know?
One of the things that is wonderful about Lerner in particular—because I never met Frederick Loewe, I wish I had—was that sense of humor. I'll be telling several anecdotes that illustrate that. There's one story about Alan Jay Lerner and Andrew Lloyd Webber, because they were going to collaborate on a show together, which I think would have been beneficial for both of them. But it was late in the game and Lerner became ill, and he passed away. But Andrew Lloyd Webber at one point had a bad experience with somebody who didn't take kindly to him, and he said to Lerner, “Why is it that everybody dislikes me instantly upon meeting me?” And without hesitation, Alan Lerner replied, “It saves time.”
What about the theme of crooners? What inspired you to look at that now?
The noise in the world. People are always hit over their head with popular music. And even on Broadway, there is a bombast that I think is antithetical sometimes to music-making. The art of crooning is not totally lost, but it is something that I think people yearn for these days. So, it's a feature of some contemporary vocalists in that art. We have three great young and younger vocalists, Milton Suggs and Zach Adkins from Broadway, and Nick Ziobro, and Nick is a former Songbook Ambassador for my Great American Songbook Foundation. He’s a wunderkind. He has perfect pitch and sings all styles of music. And it just shows the continuum of American popular song, how classic music is constantly rediscovered by younger generations, who take it and contemporize it in their own way and make it their own.
What defines a crooner?
The definition of crooner in the 1930s became known as someone who gently sang a lyric, and it was inexplicably tied into the invention of the microphone, which changed the way fundamentally that people presented popular music. On Broadway and in vaudeville, singers always had to be able to sing loud enough to reach the back row of the theatre, and that included entertainers like Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson and all the big stars of the day. And then when the microphone was invented in—well, came into general usage in 1925—then a new generation of singers came along: Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee, Russ Columbo, Buddy Clark, who understood that the microphone was an intimate means of communication and could sing quietly and the power would be transmitted from technology. Therefore, it was a new means of purveying song that had never existed before, and created a lot of matineé idols and sex symbols because there was something so intimate and sexy about that means of singing that it fundamentally changed popular music.
When you welcome these up-and-comers like Zach and Milton and Nick, how does their sound change when they croon versus when they sing on Broadway? Or is it different at all?
For most performers, I think the interpretation is determined by the song itself. By the material. However, there are many different ways one can take a standard, like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” you can sing it quietly. You can do it in a swing version as Sinatra did. You can do it as a bossa nova. You can do it as a jazz piece. In other words, the songs are so malleable that they are changeable and therefore survive because of that—because they can survive any sort of treatment. For this show, knowing the focus is on crooning, we ask all of the guests to think of songs that they would like to sing in an intimate fashion. And it's not all crooning, because we also will have uptempo things because otherwise it would be like a five-course meal that consists entirely of hors d'oeuvres.
Going back to Lerner and Loewe, their repertoire is so vast, how did you choose which songs you wanted to highlight?
Each performer had things that they knew or wanted to do. It’s a back and forth, and sometimes is the most difficult part of putting a show together. We have Liz Callaway, Melissa Ericco, and John Lloyd Young. He, of course, is known for the doo-wop thing, but he can sing anything. He's a marvelous artist.